July 30, 2009 News » Cover Story

The book(s) that changed my life 

Local notables (and a few Indy writers) reflect on transformative tomes ranging from Atlas Shrugged to Zipping My Fly

Dan Brown and Danielle Steel are all well and good for reading on the beach, if we had a beach, but theirs aren't the books that get under your skin and into your soul. For that, you generally have to venture beyond the bestseller lists and self-help shelves.

For those who would like some seasoned wisdom with their summer reading — or just want to have a peek at the neighbors' bookshelves without breaking into their homes — the Indy asked a cross-section of well-known Springs residents to write about the book that mattered most, that rare gem that managed to change their lives.

Ted Haggard

Monday, Nov. 6, 2006, was a terrible day for me and my family. The day before, my overseers read resignation letters written by me and my wife, Gayle, to New Life Church, the church we founded and pastored for 22 years. My sin had been exposed and I was being mocked in the press and in a multitude of private conversations all over America. My actions brought shame on my family and all who had demonstrated any support for the causes I loved. Press satellite trucks had been lingering in front of my house hoping to get one more interview, my children were in a whirlwind as their worlds were being turned upside-down, and massive confusion was in the hearts of my friends.

I had violated the trust of everyone who knew me. In an act of kindness toward my wife and kids, two friends, Terry Felber and Howie Danzik, arranged and paid for a house in Florida for me, Gayle and the kids to escape. So on the Monday after our resignation letters were read to a heartbroken church community, my family and I flew to Florida. Neither the airline staff nor the security people checked our identification, I think because we were on the front page of all the newspapers in the airport.

When we got onto our flight, the other passengers watched us, some even taking pictures with their cell phones and cameras. I took the window seat, not wanting to be any more obvious than I already was, and once in the air, in awkward silence, I took out a book that I'd ordered a few weeks earlier that I now believe changed my life, and, I think literally saved my life: The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey.

The Speed of Trust gave me the hope and methodology for rebuilding credibility. It taught me about the steps necessary to be trustworthy and how to begin building trust in others toward me. It listed practical behaviors and action plans that gave me both hope and direction within the crisis I was facing. I was vulnerable. I needed hope. I needed direction. And I received it.

Up until that time, I was still cloaking and misrepresenting. I had lied in two interviews, and was still in shock over the disaster I had created.

As I finished the last page, I closed the book and turned to my wife.

"I am going to take the next two weeks and tell you the whole truth about me," I said. "I will honestly answer every question you ask. I will not say or do anything that will misrepresent or distort."

Now, two and a half years later, my family is intact, our finances are in order, and our friendships are stronger than ever. This is the book that changed my life.

Ted Haggard, now an insurance salesman, was the founding pastor of New Life Church.

Dennis Apuan

As an English major in college, I wish I could tell you that it was someone like Dante or Dostoevsky, even Emerson or Eliot, who impacted my life in a profound way.

Tucked by my bedside is a little gem of a personally autographed book titled To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly by Walter Brueggemann, Sharon Parks and Thomas Groome. It serves as a constant reminder for me of what it takes to build a better world.

Like sweet honey in the rock, I savor each new meaning that bursts forth with each treasured reading. With compelling clarity, Brueggemann defines what it means to do justice: to sort out what belongs to whom, and return it to them.

The book speaks to me whenever I feel both called to and daunted by the vocation of public service. It challenges me to live out this calling in a world that is often broken and yearns for healing.

How do sacred texts require us to respond to the problems of a real world? How can we maintain compassion in our interactions with others? How can we speak with real authority while still keeping our humility? These questions are central in the book and galvanize one to political participation.

This book is a spiritual tour de force that grounds my work in social and economic justice, and my own engagement in a process of transformation and truth-telling to bring about justice in the world. It girds me with an audacious hope and deepens my commitment to public service.

Dennis Apuan, a longtime activist and nonprofit executive in the area, represents House District 17 in the state Legislature.

Trudy Strewler

A book that changed my life in a dramatic and distinctive way is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't by Jim Collins, a fascinating read about how some companies have been able to produce sustained results and achieve enduring greatness.

Even though the book examined corporate America, I immediately saw how Collins' principles and concepts could apply in the nonprofit sector (or what I like to refer to as the "social-profit" sector) and specifically to CASA, short for Court Appointed Special Advocates. I was particularly impacted by Collins' discussion of the Hedgehog Concept and the Flywheel.

The Hedgehog Concept refers to a parable of a hedgehog and a fox, where the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. To find this one big thing, you have to examine three interlocking circles, representing (1) what you are passionate about, (2) what you can make money at, and (3) what you can be the best at. At the intersection of these three things lies the winning target. If you can bring all three things to bear, you have found a way to excel.

Flywheel is the concept of positive momentum. A flywheel takes a lot of energy to set in motion, but with lots of hard work, slowly but steadily the momentum builds and the wheel goes faster and faster. Once it's in motion, all that stored energy tends to keep it moving in the right direction.

CASA's board and administrative team inserted these principles into our strategic planning five years ago, and with much hard work and steady progress, the flywheel is now turning with impressive momentum. CASA is seeing a significant growth in volunteers, staff, board and, most importantly, the number of children served.

Our goal is to serve every child in need and to ensure safe, permanent homes where children can thrive. This book has impacted my work in that it has encouraged me not to become comfortable with CASA being a good nonprofit, but to build the momentum for the future ensuring CASA's growth and sustainability.

We are grateful to everyone helping us keep the flywheel humming, and helping move us from serving 5,500 children (good) to our goal of serving all children in need (great)!

Trudy Strewler is executive director of CASA of the Pikes Peak Region.

Nathan Newbrough

The most inspiring book I've come across lately is Michael Kaiser's The Art of the Turnaround. Kaiser, current chief of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has had an amazing career reviving performing arts organizations, helping them turn the corner, emerging from financial distress as a new breed of organization. His turnarounds include the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre and London's Royal Opera House.

More than an autobiography, The Art of the Turnaround illuminates Kaiser's 10 basic rules for pulling organizations back from the brink and keeping them strong. In his view, no arts organization can succeed by simply cutting costs. Real turnarounds begin with great programming supported by great marketing.

I'd like to think that we've channeled Kaiser at the Colorado Springs Philharmonic this past year. No stranger to financial difficulty, the Philharmonic has broken the mold with its 2009-10 concert programming. Under the guidance of music director Lawrence Leighton Smith, the Philharmonic's new season is the freshest, boldest artistic statement ever made by this orchestra. And the audience has responded. In fact, more new families have joined the Philharmonic as season subscribers than ever before! The Philharmonic's turnaround has begun.

Colorado Springs is bursting with arts organizations large and small. Each one would do well to heed Kaiser's advice. It's been almost a year since I read The Art of the Turnaround, and I think I'll pull it off the shelf for a second look.

Nathan Newbrough is executive director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

Jan Martin

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose was one of those books that I couldn't stop reading once I started. Stephen Ambrose was one of my favorite authors, as he could tell a tale like no one else. Undaunted Courage is the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was fascinating in itself, but what really captured my attention was the story of leadership that ran throughout the book.

I actually felt as though I was there with this motley crew as they shoved off from St. Louis in search of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. I was captivated by their stepping into the unknown territory and leaving all they cared about behind. The crew was made up of ordinary people, like you and me, who were anxious to explore the new frontier and all it had to offer.

I think deep down, I always wanted to be a frontier person, going where no man or woman had gone before. But the real essence of this story lies in the leadership of Lewis and Clark.

It was fun for everyone at the beginning, but as their encounters with Indians and their lack of food caught up with them, it would have been so easy to turn back to their families and friends waiting for their return. Instead, Lewis and Clark kept moving the crew forward, one day and one adventure at a time. They encouraged the men, and later one woman, to pursue their goal, even when everyone and everything around them said, "Don't go any further." They kept moving, one step at a time, until they finally reached their destination. It took them four years (same time as a City Council term), and they showed more courage than most of us could even imagine mustering in a lifetime. But they did it, and together they opened a whole new frontier into the future of this country.

I often think of Lewis and Clark as I take each day and each step forward on City Council. Turning back isn't an option, but only moving forward in the pursuit of opening a new frontier for our community. Ordinary citizens can accomplish extraordinary things when they are willing to focus on the greater good and work together to reach a goal. Maybe it's our turn to explore our own new frontier for Colorado Springs.

Jan Martin, a Colorado Springs businesswoman, has served on City Council since 2007.

Rob Andrews

My love for sports has always been in my heart and always will. I had a thirst for competition and winning in basketball, football and baseball. My father was a high school football player, so I wanted to play from the moment he told me about his past glory as a linebacker.

Growing up, I started to admire athletes like Bo Jackson, Charlie Ward and Magic Johnson. My senior year at Sierra High School, I received a scholarship to play football for Hastings College, a small liberal arts school in southern Nebraska. That summer, I began to be intrigued by an athlete I had always loathed because of his personal and team success. This athlete was by far the greatest athlete of my generation and maybe ever: Michael Jordan.

I began to study his greatness and what he accomplished for sports and athletes across the world. This led me to How to Be Like Mike, a motivational book by Pat Williams. The book goes into 11 qualities about Jordan that you can use on the court, in the classroom or in the boardroom. It goes beyond sports and teaches life lessons that will last forever. I read it to remind myself what discipline, drive, work ethic and love for your profession actually look like.

Since my sophomore year in college, I have read the book over and over again, trying to absorb every lesson thoroughly. After my senior college season, I signed a contract to play for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Without this book, I do not think I would have had the mental attributes to have achieved that. The book is still very prevalent in my life, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to succeed at anything. It crosses all lines and touches people from every walk of life, with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., to Grant Hill. No matter what industry you are in, read it and you will look differently at the way you practice your profession.

Rob Andrews, who is involved in small business, worked as a local organizer for the Obama campaign.

Paula Miller

Books have been changing my life for more than 50 years ... so it is difficult to choose just one.

When I was young, books like Little Women and Eight Cousins made me feel connected to, and not so different from, the rest of the world: I had four sisters, one brother and a large extended family, so I identified with Louisa May Alcott's characters. Yet, at that same young age, classics like Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne helped me understand that there was a world beyond my front porch — a big, wide world that was different from my own family experience of growing up in poverty in the Appalachians of the early 1960s.

Those books were my escape and my road map to other places and an alternative life. They led to my becoming a first-generation college graduate and to a sense of adventure and exploration that has stayed with me to this day. By the time I was 22, I had lived in Washington, D.C. (working at the Library of Congress) and New York City (working at Kennedy International Airport), and had saved enough for a six-week trip to Europe.

My experiences with many great books at a young age also led to a lifetime devotion to books and the printed word through a career in, and a passion for, libraries. Every day in the Pikes Peak Library District, we see just how immensely books and information can and do change people's lives.

Margaret Atwood said, "A word after a word after a word is power." Whether you write powerful words, or whether you read and consider powerful words ... how true.

Paula Miller is executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District.

Douglas Bruce

Twenty-five years ago, a friend told me my self-reliant philosophy of life was captured in Ayn Rand's ponderous tome, Atlas Shrugged. I read its 1,100-plus pages and agreed.

Atlas, a mythical Greek Titan, was tasked to hold up the heavens, separate from the earth. He was the epitome of individual responsibility. In this 1957 novel, America's titans of industry, the few entrepreneurs who focus on creation and production rather than consumption, are badgered and exploited by collectivists to the point that they finally stop working. They basically go on strike, withholding their services, and society collapses.

Workers whine; they are jobless since no one is organizing their efforts into a specific project. Parasites protest; their unproductive, passive dependency requires their longtime victims. Governments grumble; they can't tax and regulate those with no property and no income.

As leaders leave, followers fall. Fascism forms first; anarchy awaits ahead.

At the end, the producers cluster in a Colorado canyon, to form a new society to replace the one brilliantly outlined in 1776, but steadily subverted for the past 100 years.

Atlas had shrugged his shoulders and declined to carry the burden anymore. Socialism and statism had shown their shortcomings. As Margaret Thatcher noted, "The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money."

After a half-century, it is amazing how prophetic Rand's tale is. National economies now implode; welfare programs explode. Politics is exposed as a moral fraud, based on theft and coercion. Legal and fiscal limits? None. Our inspired Constitution? A dead letter, twisted by lawyers, scorned by judges. The rule of law? Buried by election results bought by dirty money, influenced by ACORN.

Obama seeks to "soak the rich" and make 2 percent of society pay trillions to meet demands for "free" health care and other "rights." Total state and local income tax rates will then exceed 50 percent, not counting other taxes. Washington appointees, despite their own tax violations, label as tax cheats those who wish to invest elsewhere.

The demagogue's answer to this decline? Don't ask questions. The plan? Steal more quickly, and print paper money faster.

French economist Frédéric Bastiat said 160 years ago, "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else."

Our beloved America, the historic hope of humanity, is now in free-fall. Why? It fell for a charming charlatan's siren song to "share the wealth." Marx's maniacal manifesto finally overcame the ageless wisdom of Exodus 20:15, which firmly warned, "Thou shalt not steal." Yes, that divine dictate included hiring the government to steal for you.

Rand was right. I wish to God she weren't.

Douglas Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, has served as a county commissioner and state legislator.

Richard Myers

There have been several books that have had a powerful impact on my view of the world. Professionally, the landmark book Good to Great by Jim Collins has inspired me, and Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a book I refer to often.

But the most profound impact that books have had for me are not business-oriented but personally focused. The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw provided me tremendous insight into the character and strength and selflessness of my parents. Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley taught me more about my dad's World War II experiences than I ever heard from him, and the book helped me to understand why.

These two books have inspired me to strive to live the ethical, selfless and devoted life of my parents, and to try to model similar values in parenting my own children. Both books helped me understand the depths of sacrifice that my parents' generation made for our country and for "baby boomers" like me. Knowing what they went through with the Depression, the war, and the post-war pressures to rebuild have helped me gain insight and understanding where before I may have lacked tolerance.

After reading them, and sequels by Brokaw, I cannot look at an aging member of "The Greatest Generation" without a sense of appreciation and gratitude. These books helped me avoid thinking that "legacy" is all about what looks good about yourself, and truly means what you've done for the betterment of others.

Richard "Rick" Myers is chief of the Colorado Springs Police Department.

Sam Gappmayer

In junior high, I read Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. It was one of my first full-on, grown-up books and opened my mind to the possibilities of good literature. It sensitized me to the crushing effects of poverty in the world and continues to play a role in framing my thinking about social issues. Also, the narrative included drugs, violence, concubines and an exotic setting — heady stuff for a 12-year-old in 1968.

In high school, a wonderful English teacher named Joanne Troxel read Herman Melville's novelette Bartleby the Scrivener to us. The pleasure of resting my head on my desk and hearing her read was profound and continues as a cherished memory.

In more recent years, two books come to mind: Reza Aslan's No god but God and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. The first began to fill a vast void in my understanding of and appreciation for Islam, and the second provided critical information about one of the defining events of our time. In the same vein, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks was fascinating and informative.

Finally, I can't neglect to mention the scripture stories read to me by my parents that continue to provide meaning and comfort. These narratives have been the most consistent and lasting literary influence in my life.

Sam Gappmayer is president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Rich Tosches

Here's a book that really changed my life: Zipping My Fly — Moments in the Life of an American Sportsman. I say it changed my life because with its publication a few years ago, I went, almost overnight, from being known around here as "that no-good, filthy, worthless son of a $%^&*" to this: "That no-good, filthy, worthless son of a $%^&* who wrote a book."

That's right. With Zipping My Fly, I became an authe ... auttho ... awthorr ... a guy who got a book published.

And I don't want to brag, but the publisher has sold some 16,000 copies of Zipping My Fly, an alleged humor book on the art of fly fishing that includes my long-winded and pointless telling of such tales as the time I nearly drowned when I was pushed into the North Platte River in Wyoming by a herd of cows.

This book says to young and aspiring writers, "Hold tight to your dreams, young people. And if you don't mind, bend the bill of your baseball cap just a little because when it's straight like that, well, you look like a dork."

The book culminated some 30 years of avid fly fishing, a sport that begins with the intricate creation of the artificial fly, the joining of feathers and fur with waxed thread, and then, after years and years of practice, standing in a clear mountain stream amid the soothing and cascading water, casting the nearly weightless fly back and forth, back and forth until the hook lodges painfully in your nose.

Then it's off to the nearest medical facility, where you get a tetanus shot as you smile and dream of your next great fly fishing adventure.

Oh, and I was just kidding about not wanting to brag. I really want to brag. So here goes. The Los Angeles Times Book Review actually got a copy of my book (OK, OK, I sent it, with a $100 bill tucked into the jacket) and wrote this: "Tosches's humor is an explosive mix of Dave Sedaris and Dave Barry." This makes me one of the goofiest guys around who is not named "Dave" or "Mayor Lionel Rivera."

And that's how my life was changed by a book. Oh, by the way, you can still buy it. Just yesterday I got an order for a copy of Zipping My Fly from a woman in South Carolina by the name of Jenny Sanford. She said it was a gift. She asked me to sign it: "To Governor Sanford, you no-good, filthy, worthless son of a $%^&*."

Rich Tosches, a columnist for the Independent, has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Gazette and other papers along the way, as well as online for yahoo.com.

Pete Lee

For more than 30 years, as a practicing lawyer and community volunteer, I have been involved with juvenile justice and more recently with restorative justice. Restorative justice is a process that enables offenders to meet their victims face-to-face and to do what is necessary to repair the harm. In the process, they accept responsibility and develop empathy. Most don't re-offend.

Because of these interests, I was fascinated and intrigued by Last Chance in Texas, John Hubner's story about hard-core youthful offenders sent to Texas' Giddings State School to participate in a program of intensive therapy, role-playing and, hopefully, rehabilitation. Identified as the worst of the worst, these juveniles had been sentenced to terms of 25 years, 30 years or life for heinous crimes like aggravated assaults and murder. They are given a unique opportunity for redemption.

Hubner follows these kids through gut-wrenching sessions where they describe the traumas of their earlier years and then recount their own crimes to their peers. Then, in astounding cathartic descriptions, they re-enact their crimes, playing the role of their victims. In the process they develop remorse, then empathy, and thus begin their transformation. If they succeed in this rigorous "capital offenders group," their chances for early release are virtually assured. It is a difficult read, but ultimately a story of hope and redemption.

Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is a fictionalized account loosely based on the life of Louisiana populist governor Huey "Kingfisher" Long. It is a riveting story about a master politician who accomplished significant good for his community, but at the cost of his soul and the corruption of those around him. It is a story of responsibility and accountability as the building of schools, roads and hospitals is accompanied by dishonesty, disillusionment and then assassination.

When I read this book in college, I was struck by the idea of responsibility for unanticipated remote consequences and the pervasive corrupting impact of the loss of integrity. On reflection decades later, Warren's book remains a sobering exposé of the political world that contains timeless wisdom.

Pete Lee, a local attorney and restorative justice leader, ran for the state Senate in 2008.

Sallie Clark

In my early days in local politics, my dad gave me a book titled Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment by William C. Byham and Jeff Cox.

He knew of my passion for working with people in both business and government and wanted to help me to succeed. This book was so entertaining that when I picked it up, I couldn't put it down until I finished. While I've never been much for dry management books, the beauty of this book is that it was fun and fast reading, telling an interesting yarn about a fictional kingdom and a factory that made magic wands. Perhaps my personal interest in science fiction has something to do with it, but the underlying meaning is significant.

The book's primary focus is to motivate and teach employers and managers how to persuade employees to increase production on their own. It defines how some people "sapp" productivity through negative energy and some "zapp" others with positive energy to succeed. It's a mythical story where dragons roam and knights slay them with magic arrows; however, the dragons start multiplying faster than the knight's supply of arrows can be replenished.

Thanks to the help of a clever wizard, eventually employees are empowered to increase their magic arrow production, and the company diversifies into also making a new line of magic cleaning wands.

While on the surface, this book may seem simplistic, the analogies to the human psyche and underlying individual motivation can be easily applied to real life.

I have been able to continually apply many of those same theories to my work as a business owner and as a county commissioner: bringing diverse groups to the table to discuss difficult issues while finding common ground; motivating others to move in a positive (zapp!) direction to solve problems through communication and recognition; learning how to better serve my community as a team player who sees many points of view by listening and responding with empathy while also asking for help to solve problems.

It provided me with inspirational and innovative ideas on human reaction and explained how a system with a lack of energy can be detrimental to achieving important goals. It also demonstrated ways in which individuals can remove negative obstacles and become leaders by learning how to "zapp" others. And, while I'm a positive person by nature, it never hurts to learn new ideas for bringing people together to achieve important goals. Thanks, Dad!

Sallie Clark is serving her second term on the El Paso County Board of Commissioners.

Mike Moran

The book that changed my life was Clair Bee's 1950 Hoop Crazy, one of the first of the fabled Chip Hilton series written by the legendary basketball coach. I was an 8-year-old kid in Omaha, Neb., and the only member of my family even remotely interested in sports in any way. I was obsessed with basketball, shooting baskets at the rim and backboard my dad had erected atop our old garage, dreaming of making the winning shot.

My uncle gave me the first of the Chip Hilton books in 1948, and I fell for the town (Valley Falls), the players, Chip Hilton and his pals, the "Hilton A.C.," his backyard where they shot hoops, and his hard-working single mother, Mary. I would devour the books, one by one, reading them late at night by a table lamp in the bedroom I shared with my little brother and creating my own on-the-court scenarios based on Chip and his teammates as they played for the state title.

The book propelled me into competitive basketball full-force, from grade-school CYO play through my sophomore year at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I opened my college career by sinking an old-fashioned hook shot against Benedictine College in a tiny, dark gym in Atchison, Kan. Chip Hilton and the books inspired me to find a job where I could be involved in sports, and I did just that.

I am celebrating my 43rd year in sports media and public relations this year, and as I have almost annually since 1950, I will make a point of reading one of the dozen Chip Hilton books I have collected. It will take me back to those innocent days and the soft sound of a basketball as it creased the nets, time after time, gym after gym, crowd after crowd, the smell of the hardwood floors and all.

Chip Hilton always made the winning shot, while I made just a few. But the tall blond kid from Valley Falls made it possible for me to enjoy 14 Olympic Games during a career in sports, and friendships with sportswriters and broadcasters to last a lifetime.

Mike Moran, longtime head of media relations for the U.S. Olympic Committee, now does similar work for the Colorado Springs Sports Corp.

Nicholas Gledich

We read for pleasure, and we read to learn. Both purposes are important and shape our thinking. After reading The New Rational Manager by Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe 10 years ago, I began to shape how I tackle situations. It provided simple tools and taught me the value of questioning to the void!

Four questions (What's going on? Why did this happen? Which course of action should we take? What lies ahead?) allowed me to work through several complex issues over the years. The book provides the reader with the tools to solve problems, make decisions, anticipate future problems and appraise current situations — all actions educators take on a daily basis. As a result, one's thinking is visible, desired results are known and who is accountable for what is clearly defined.

This book inspired me to want to learn more and gain the skills of problem-solving and decision-making. It was the one book that I did not read and just learn, but I read and reached out to seek more information. I found myself using bits and pieces of most of the processes in my daily work. They shaped who I am today and how I go about my daily tasks. Jokingly, those around me called me the "problem-solver," "tool man" and "chart man." Going beyond the tease, I found ways to feel good about the work and ways that allowed others to contribute to the work. We began to solve problems, establish actions and walk our talk.

Nicholas "Nick" Gledich is the new superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11.

Ken Voeller

I was never much of a reader in my younger days. Sure, I read a few of the Hardy Boys mysteries, a Goosebumps book here and there, but nothing too substantial. I really only read when my little brother was away for the weekend and I was left alone with my sisters.

Rather than entertain my sisters' idea of "fun" (which usually involved at least one of the many Disney princesses), I would sit at the kitchen table, my 10-year-old feet dangling a few inches above the floor, and flip through the pages of a book.

One weekend in June, (I believe my brother was away at summer camp) I was sitting at the kitchen table with a copy of Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen. Harris and Me tells the story of a young boy who goes to live with his bizarre cousin, Harris, on a farm.

To be honest, I don't really remember much of the plot. However, I do remember that at one point in the novel, the boys catch a bullfrog and proceed to make what apparently is known as a frog balloon.

How to make a Frog Balloon as defined by the book:

Step 1: Catch a bullfrog.

Step 2: Insert plastic straw into bullfrog's rear end.

Step 3: Blow into the other end of the plastic straw.

Step 4: Watch as the bullfrog expands like a balloon.

Note: If done correctly, the bullfrog should resemble a pufferfish.

I was sold. In fact, I did what any 10-year-old boy would probably do after reading such a passage. I strapped on my boots, put on my coat and stepped out into the rainy Seattle weather equipped with nothing but a small fishing net and a plastic straw.

And from that point on, I read everything I could get my grubby little hands on.

Without this book, I would never have discovered many of the writers that I read and re-read today. I would never have met characters like Holden Caulfield and Jake Barnes, and I would never have developed the habit of carrying a book in my backpack wherever I go. In fact, as family history shows, I'd probably be an engineering major computing the thrust of a jet engine on my expensive calculator rather than studying English at the Colorado College.

I never caught any frogs that day. I found some slugs, but that's another story ...

Ken Voeller is an intern at the Independent.

Avalon Manly

I spent most of my life certain that Stephen King's literary prolificacy was nothing more than one more addition to the list of meritless books you can buy at Walmart.

Then I saw the movie Hearts in Atlantis. Intrigued by the story, I was given the book upon which the film was based.

I didn't make it halfway. I read the first section of the book, "Low Men in Yellow Coats" (the only part of the novel that reached the screen), with a slow combination of fascination and dread. Being 12 or 13 at the time, the nuances of the story were lost on me — and I lost significant amounts of sleep for the nightmares it caused.

Years later, as a college student, I found the dusty tome buried on one of my shelves, and read it again, all of it this time, in a span of days. And every word rang with brutal truth.

Crossing the years between 1959 to 1999, King's tale is one part social commentary, one part morality tale and two parts treatise on human nature. His rendition of the Vietnam War foreshadows current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the title story conveys the gradual loss of vibrancy that can overtake the human soul.

Hearts in Atlantis taught me that Stephen King is more than a dime-store weaver of ghost stories. But most of all, it taught me that in our world, people are what matter.

Avalon Manly is an intern at the Independent.

Matthew Schniper

I was 16 when I became a vegan — cold turkey, virtually overnight. Although a co-worker at a gourmet Italian place in Birmingham, Ala., was central to my paradigm shift, it wasn't until I picked up a copy of John Robbins' Diet for a New America, at said co-worker's recommendation, that I fully understood the multitude of problems with our agricultural infrastructure.

This was long before Michael Pollan, Morgan Spurlock and Eric Schlosser became household names. Robbins, the man who gave the finger to his family's Baskin-Robbins empire, deserves credit as a sustainable and healthy eating pioneer.

Once I learned how commercial pigs, chicken and cattle were (and still are) being treated, I couldn't simply look the other way and continue my previous eating habits. Out went eggs, butter, milk and cold cuts; in came veggie burgers, rice milk, flax oil and all the products that have enjoyed growing market shares in the past few years as the sustainable movement has blossomed.

Short of throwing out my leather belt and hand-me-down punk leather jacket, I adopted the whole "meat is murder, dairy is rape" attitude, even pestering my own family about their pantry pickings. I carried this persona into my freshman year at Colorado College in 1997 — confounding all my new classmates, who couldn't quite comprehend a long-haired Alabaman vegan Jew.

When I began backpacking overseas a couple years later, I eased my boycott to allow a little dairy, and a few years later reintroduced meat — but only if it were sustainably produced. Though I now eat just about anything as a food critic for the Indy, my kitchen at home remains 95 percent organic, local or "natural," as much as I'm able to distinguish with the growing amount of "greenwashing" (in which companies market products as sustainable, when they actually aren't).

I've reflected on Robbins' book at various times over the years, for sort of an ethical rebalancing and tune-up. His arguments remain as relevant as they were more than 20 years ago. And his unsettling gaze behind the corporate mega-farms' curtains remains largely unparalleled.

As many food-centric films and books preach today: We truly do vote three times a day (at least) for the types of foods and food practices we want to bring into a better tomorrow.

Matthew Schniper is a culture editor at the Independent.

Edie Adelstein

It's inevitable I would grow to adore Truman Capote's writing. For years I heard stories about his mythic life, most notably how he befriended a neighbor of my grandmother's in Green Mountain Falls, a wealthy widow from Kansas named Vi Tate.

Tate and Capote met through her husband, Judge Roland Tate, who presided over the murder case of the Clutter family, the subject of what's ostensibly Capote's best book, In Cold Blood. Capote interviewed the Tates and after the book was published and Judge Tate died, he and Vi became friends and travel companions for a few years in the late '60s and early '70s. He even visited her Green Mountain Falls summer cabin once, overlooking the same road and stream that I've known my whole life.

I read Capote for the first time, long after he died, at age 17. Within the first paragraphs of Music for Chameleons, I realized what was missing from my impression of him: his magnificent writing. Music consists of short stories, some semi-autobiographical, while others riff on his crime stories. His description of a mahogany room in "Mojave" quenched a thirst for deliberate, elegant language I never knew I lacked. His best story in the collection, though, and one often published alone, is "A Christmas Memory," which recounts an era of Capote's childhood spent with a much older and mentally challenged cousin who was his caregiver.

"Memory" details Capote and his cousin (called only "my friend") baking fruitcakes from scratch and crafting homemade presents; their simple traditions shaped by poverty but beautified by imagination. Capote is eventually taken away from his beloved friend (by "those who Know Best"), their time together dissolving from all ways of existence except his memory.

With each read, I'm left feeling almost saddened — Capote and Tate's travels waned with Capotes's increased substance abuse and rendezvous with strange men. Tate aired her aggravation to my grandmother, memorably, with, "I'm cross with Truman."

Now Capote is gone and Tate's cabin belongs to a new family. My grandmother still lives next door, just as always.

I may have been predisposed to enjoy Music, but not revere it. All quaint stories aside, Music showed me the way to writing, and there's no turning back. We did, after all, walk the same road, once.

Edie Adelstein is assistant listings editor at the Independent.

Virginia Leise

Whenever I recommend Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman to someone, I preface it with, "It has a really bad title, but it's a really good book."

The book follows Klosterman's stream of consciousness as he drives around the United States to visit sites where rock stars have died. At the outset, the Spin magazine music critic's goal is to figure out why rock stars only become rock legends postmortem. But, instead, he mostly just ruminates about bands he likes and the various women in his life. Punctuated with anecdotes from his road trip, the book meanders through a wide girth of topics: KISS, Beyoncé, the cocaine vs. marijuana debate etc. Hilarity ensues — but not the typical humor that relies on snark or elitism. Mostly because as a North Dakota native, Klosterman has neither the clout, nor the desire, to implement either.

I read this book when I was 17, and, therefore, deeply preoccupied with my taste in music. I believed that somehow the validity of my existence was intrinsically linked to the eclecticism and sophistication of my iPod. Quantity, above all, was key. So when Klosterman wrote in the introduction, "I have 2,233 CDs ... if an acquaintance has more CDs than me, I feel intimidated and emasculated. I think about my CDs a lot," I felt I had found a kindred spirit.

Klosterman and I, however, differed in a lot of ways. Most notably, he was never satisfied to regurgitate a smug, popular opinion whether it be about Radiohead or Olive Garden. He challenged the lazy snarkiness that has rooted itself into the discourse about music and culture in the United States.

Before, whenever I had encountered snobbery in any arena, I never recognized it for what it was. I was just a kid from New Jersey, after all. As far as I knew, any opinion other than mine was the superior one. After reading this book, it occurred to me that maybe even if you are from a lame state (New Jersey and North Dakota are definitely contenders for the lamest possible), you may also have a valid opinion about a few things.

The most endearing thing to me about Klosterman is that he doesn't always get it right. I completely disagree with him about Beyoncé (she is infallible) and I don't understand why he gave such a charming, funny book such a stupid, pretentious title. The fact that I can say so, however, is due in part to him.

Virginia Leise is an intern at the Independent.

Feel free to send your own most meaningful literary experience to newsroom@csindy.com, so we can share them with other Indy readers. You can find additional essays from Indy staff with this package at csindy.com.


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